A novelist whose book has the term "modern classic" practically affixed as a subtitle typically continues to write novels. Natalie Babbitt is, decidedly, atypical. Tuck Everlasting, now considered a classic in children's literature, was published in 1975, and has gone on to sell more than three million copies. It was her seventh novel in as many years. She wrote two more, the last in 1982, but has written none since. Instead, Babbitt, now 74, returned to what was her first love: painting.
"I wanted to see what I could do in color before I was too old to hold a paintbrush," she says.
However, Babbitt the novelist has returned with Jack Plank Tells Tales (Scholastic/di Capua), a witty, genial collection of stories about an unemployed pirate's search for a new line of work in 18th-century Jamaica. Scholastic plans a 50,000-copy first printing.
"The thing about Jack Plank for me," says Michael di Capua, her longtime editor, "is to see Natalie return in full cry. She has an authority with language and this amazing ability to write in such a silky way. It's an enormous pleasure to have another novel after all this time."
Di Capua believes that part of the reason Babbitt stopped writing novels is simply that her life was very full (she now has has three grown children), and she didn't feel compelled to have a book out in order to feel complete. Babbitt, though, holds to her sense that she was an artist first and that, even now, she's trying to adjust to the idea that she is a writer. For the first book she published, she was an illustrator only. "I didn't know I could write," she says of The Forty-ninth Magician (Pantheon, 1966), written by her husband, Sam. But Sam Babbitt found the writer's life unsatisfying and became a university administrator, forcing Natalie to write her own texts. Di Capua published her next two picture books, both written in rhyme, and then made what he calls his only "major contribution" to her career. "I said something along the lines of 'Why don't you try to write something in prose?' "
Babbitt began a fairy tale, which quickly outgrew picture book length (di Capua quips, "It was as if I had asked for a rain dance and got a monsoon"). Less than a year later, she turned in The Search for Delicious (FSG, 1969), a novel about a nonsensical argument over the correct definition for the word "delicious," that leads a kingdom to the brink of war. Babbitt wrote with the daily dispatches from Vietnam firmly in mind. It required no revisions. "It was a fully formed thing. The manuscript she delivered is the book you read now," di Capua says. "At the time, I don't think I understood how hard it was to do that," Babbitt recalls.
Before Jack Plank, though she published a few short-story collections in the 1980s, Babbitt's last full-length novel was Herbert Rowbarge (FSG, 1982). Di Capua published it as a juvenile title but many people, including Babbitt, thought it had more appeal for grownups. "A couple of FSG's big adult authors were publishing books that year," she says. "So mine went out like all of my other books but nobody knew what to do with it." It is now out of print.
That disappointment, Babbitt insists, is not what stayed her pen. Yes, she says, she wanted to paint. But she offers an anecdote about the writer Avi that suggests a humbler reason. "Avi gets up in the morning and has three new good ideas," she says. "I have just a handful of subjects and I'm working my way through the list."
One of the items now crossed off is a pirate story. JackPlank had been in her head for years, Babbitt says, long before the current craze for all things piratical. Indeed, she's been quoted, decades ago, as stating that in preschool her career goal was to be a pirate.
Babbitt says she has one other novel she wants to write "before I cork off," and its subject—money—stems from her Depression-era childhood. She had actually started it before Jack Plank but got stuck. "At about the time Jack was ready to go to the printer," di Capua says, "she pulled out the other manuscript and had a 'Eureka!' moment. Lately, whenever we speak, she's almost always complaining about some obligation that's keeping her away from her writing table."
Not for long, her many fans hope.